Editorial: The Deschutes River's beauty hides problems

July 6, 2020
Editorial: The Deschutes River's beauty hides problems

By the Bulletin Editorial Board

There was a time in Central Oregon when progress was measured by jobs, by if the railroad would come through town and by developing canals to move water out of the Deschutes River and on to farmland.

Jobs still very much matter. The railroad now plays a lesser role. The view of the river has changed.

It’s so accepted now that the river’s health requires more water stays in the river it’s hard to grasp what a profound change that has been. But the system that was so carefully developed to harness the river and unlock the potential for farmland continues to clash with the river’s health.

River health was never taken completely for granted. Some of the first editorials in this newspaper in the early 1900s urged people to not use the river as a trash can — it should be treated as an asset that needed protection. Still, the process for managing the river was set up a century ago. The needs have changed. It’s led to problems all along the river. We’ll just discuss one stretch — from Bend to Lake Billy Chinook. It’s called the Middle Deschutes. Keep in mind it’s arguably not even the section in the most trouble.

By 1905, the water in the Middle Deschutes was over allocated. More water was distributed in water rights than there was water in the river during the summer.

Irrigation districts eventually formed an agreement in 1962 to keep at least some water flowing. From 1962 through the 1980s, the agreement was the water flowing below North Canal Dam should be about 30 cubic feet per second or 13,000 gallons a minute. That was hardly a river. The lower flows choked off life. The river ran hot. That made it hard for fish and other animals to survive. Historical flows were mighty by comparison — 1,200 cubic feet per second to 1,300 cubic feet per second, according to the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Flows in the Middle Deschutes notably increased from 2002 to 2009. Summer flows went from about 30 cfs to more than 120 cfs. In recent years, it has stayed around 130 cfs in the summer.

How did that increase happen? There are many different pieces to the answer. Conservation. Leasing of water rights. Permanent transfers.

Piping is a piece. It’s an expensive one. It can also be controversial. People who live along canals do not want a canal has been like a flowing stream — at least part of the year — turned into a lump of dirt covering a pipe. Some critics don’t like the idea of so much taxpayer money being spent on piping with a direct benefit to irrigation districts and water right holders. It’s a public subsidy of a private taking of a public good — the water in the river.

Piping, though, does improve the river. The recently completed Rogers Lateral Pipeline Project is an example. It was a project of the Swalley Irrigation District. It replaced a leaky 3-mile canal with a 24-inch pipe. The project means about 1.8 cfs more for the Middle Deschutes. The project budget was about $2.6 million. Most of that came from the federal government, some $1.89 million. The Deschutes River Conservancy secured about $646,000 through the state. Swalley’s contribution was $100,000.

The cost of more piping, though, is an incredible hurdle. Piping all the miles and miles of leaky canals in the Deschutes Basin has a bewildering price tag: $1 billion. There are other less expensive options. Irrigation districts could do more to encourage patrons to conserve water and use it more efficently. More water rights could also be leased or sold to keep more water instream and get more water where it needs to go.

The Upper Deschutes Basin Study completed a few years ago concluded that the average cost for piping is about $5,000 per acre foot of water. Leasing and selling average about $400 per acre foot. It’s easy to see where the better place is to invest taxpayer money. But if you own a water right on a property or manage an irrigation district, there aren’t great incentives to trade water away. The structure set up to harness the river’s potential continues to impede its health.

If you want to know what you could do, a great place to start is to go to the Deschutes River Conservancy’s website, deschutesriver.org.

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